Duhard, Jean-Pierre
Upper Palaeolithic figures as a reflection of human morphology and social organization
Antiquity 67. 254 (March, 1993): 83 (9 pages).

Abstract: An analysis of Upper Palaeolithic figures indicated a sexual social differentiation in the hunter-gatherer society and showed the priviledged role accorded to women in the primitive community. This was exemplified by the depiction of women in a majority of the Palaeolithic figures and apparent underrepresentation of men and children. It was sugge sted that women were priviledged due to the importance of their physiological role: as mothers, sexual and social partners.

© Antiquity Publications Ltd. (UK) 1993


We assume that Palaeolithic artists portrayed men and women from models around them. If this assumption of realistic representation is correct, their art should display the diversity of their life, portraying both physical variations and individuals of both sexes and every age. The animal art does indeed present such a diversity -- for example, the panneau aux bouquetins (ibex panel) of the Bourdois shelter, in Angles- sur-l'Anglin, which shows seven subjects, 'three males and one female preceding her calf', then 'a male following his female' (Saint-Mathurin 1984). We shall try to demonstrate by means of examples, cross-checked by our own observations, that the same applies to human art, which provides a picture of nature and the behaviour of human Palaeolithic groups, as much from the demographic as from the social point of view.

The social range

In Palaeolithic art it is a mistake to retain the common picture of representation exclusively of obese women, mothers or nurses, for they are not the general rule. In addition to these over-publicized cliches, and humans of indeterminate sex, there are many slender feminine subjects and a not inconsiderable number of masculine subjects, as well as human beings of all ages, from infants to old people.


We have demonstrated (Duhard 1989a; 1989b) that Upper Palaeolithic art showed pregnant or parturient women and scenes of copulation. Logically, there must have been children, which we wish to confirm in this paper.

1 The 'new-born' no. 35-I from La Marche

Pales pointed out that the head was 'too large in relation to the body', and that there were two bulges on the occiput; he wondered if the 'glove finger' outline in front of the knee was a semi-erect penis (1976) which would allow it, 'rightly or wrongly', to be identified as a male (1968). Having examined this trapezoidal limestone plaque (Laboratoire de Prehistoire, Musee de l'Homme, Paris), we regard it to show a new born infant, for the following reasons:

a the head is very large, as is the case with babies, where the length of the head is one quarter of the height;

b the double occipital contour suggests a cephalic bruise ('cephalematome') as L. Pales believed it to be; it is in fact an extravasation of blood beneath the periosteum, resulting from a fracture of the external surface of the bone, which appears between a few hours and two days following birth, reaching its peak around the tenth day and only showing resorption after several weeks; the osteogenic reaction, at the limit of detachment, results in a hard rim and shows a clean circumferential edge (Merger 1967);

c the lower limbs are slightly bent, which is post-birth persistence of the foetal posture. We find it again in Fontanet's small subject no. 103;

d the 'glove finger' outline, the extremity of which disappears in the lines of the plates, does not correspond to the position of a penis, which would be hidden by the thigh, but to that of an umbilical cord;

e the superposition on subject no. 35-II, with a bulging and gravid- looking abdomen, is not a conclusive argument, but this comparison should be borne in mind.

2 Children of plate no. 27

We have also examined the large triangular slab fractured into three matching pieces (La Marche, Laboratoire de Prehistoire, Musee de l'Homme, Paris), and we agree with Dr Pales' estimation (1976):

The impression produced is that of young individuals, children or teenagers, mainly the first one (I), whose face is truly baby-like.

The shape of the head of the latter, with its bulging forehead, and the back of the occipital elongation, are very reminiscent of the plastic cranial deformation which can occur during childbirth in frontal presentation. It would be unwise to give ages to these heads, but the impression is that of 'young individuals', as Pales wrote.

3 The 'young girls' of Laugerie-Basse and Bruniquel

'Only the genitalia permit identification as a woman, unless she is a young girl', A. Ducros pertinently remarked (1983) about the first one. In fact, this slender subject, without marks of maternity, or breasts (as shown by our examination at the Musee de l'Homme, Duhard 1989a), shows a straight, narrow and vertical vulvar slit, which is an infantile feature. We emphasized the same aspect of the second figure from Bruniquel, examined at the Musee des Antiquites Nationales (Saint-Germain-en-Laye).

'Intellectual realism' may be put forward for the positioning of the vulvar slit that way, but there remain the slenderness and the absence of breasts in these two feminine figures, which are realistic in other aspects, particularly the lower limbs, very accurately rendered up to their separation.

4 Fontanet's no. 103

Vialou (1985) describes a new-born girl child, because of the flexed and separated lower limbs, the linear and frontal vulvar slit, and the large breadth of the limbs compared with their length.

5 The Brassempouy 'cradle'

This piece was discovered during an excavation campaign directed by H. Delporte (1985) in the Perigordian VC of the so-called 'Grotte du Pape' (Pope's Cave), a short distance from the spot where the 'Torse' (torso) with pregnant abdomen was found. It is made up of two bone objects, apparently without traces of working and found in close association, one resembling a cradle, the other a child lying in it.

6 The Gonnersdorf case

FIGURE 5 shows 'four figures one behind the other, a small form turning backwards is engraved behind the back of the second one on the right; we see there the representation of a baby carried and tied to the back of a woman' (Bosinski 1973). Attention should be drawn to a physiological detail: this woman alone, assumed to be a mother, is depicted with rounded breasts, while the other women, without babies on their back, have pointed breasts.

A second plate shows a roughly anthropomorphic figure, without limbs or genitalia, which is linked by lines to a neighbouring female silhouette fessiere (gluteal silhouette) with a flat abdomen and small breasts. Marshack (1975) sees this as a foetus attached by the umbilical cord, but this remains an assumption.


Not only all shapes and sizes of people, but also all ages are to be found. This does not mean, however, that demographic inferences can be drawn.

1 Female morphologies

Even a cursory examination of the carved or engraved female figures, whether Gravettian or Magdalenian, quickly shows that all morphologies are represented, from slender to short, thick-set women. This diversity is an essential characteristic, and Nelson (1990) is right in pointing it out. A more thorough examination, such as we have attempted on French representations, shows that some of them are gravid, and that adiposity is generally related to that condition (Duhard 1988; 1989a; 1991).

When this adiposity is studied in detail (Duhard 1991), it becomes evident that the women depicted display every variation and accurately reproduce the forms encountered among living people (Duhard 1988): excessive gluteal fat (steatopygia), fat round the hips (steatocoxia), femoral fat (steatotrochanteria), and crural fat (steatomeria). Palaeolithic human figurative art thus reflects living morphological diversity and in this respect is realistic.

2 The various ages of the woman

a P.C. Rice's thesis

We attentively read Rice's article (1981) and we are grateful to her for her long reply (pers. comm. 1988) to our request for her data sheets. We are therefore all the more sorry that we cannot totally agree with her analysis. From the study of photographic reproductions and submitting five morphological characters to the assessment of five experts, she classifies women into three 'reproduction-related age groups': young or pre- reproductive females; medium, or reproductive females (pregnant or non- pregnant); and old or post-reproductive females. She compares the plotted percentages with those found in present-day hunter-gatherer societies and, by comparing their apparent similarities, claims that the Palaeolithic 'Venuses' represent the complete range of the various reproduction-related groups of Upper Palaeolithic adult women. Finding the non-pregnant women proportionally more common than the pregnant ones, she infers that 'it is womanhood rather than motherhood that is symbolically recognized...'. We shall return to that point later.

This theoretical exercise in palaeo-ethnological fiction is unfortunately based on an incorrect methodology, with non-demonstrated assumptions, and a number of errors. What supports the description of the Gabillou 'Femme a l'anorak' (anorak-wearing woman) as pregnant, when the femininity is questionable and there is no swollen abdomen (Duhard 1990a)? In the Bedeilhac figurine, which is confined to the head, what argument can be put forward to justify the assertion that it is of the female sex and, moreover, menopausal? How can she state positively that at Grimaldi there are only three pregnant women, when everyone is in agreement in seeing six? The opinions of the experts are very often divergent. In Angles-sur-l'Anglin, for instance, for the second figure (with a very bulging abdomen), expert 1 delivers a correct diagnosis (i.e. reproductive and pregnant); expert 2 offers no opinion; experts 3 and 4 classify it among the young and pre-reproductive females, which is the classification eventually accepted. It should be noted that the third figure is represented only by its pelvis and thighs, rendering any interpretation difficult (it is classified as young and pre-reproductive) and the fourth (on the panneau aux bouquetins) is not quoted. Statistical treatment of the figures certainly permits us to advance our knowledge of the Upper Palaeolithic world, but in this case it is necessary for the demonstrations to be supported by valid data. This appears not to have been the case: for the Euro-Asiatic group, only 132 figures have been considered (the total number of French examples); many were overlooked (14 in La Marche, 13 at Les Combarelles), all the stylized figures were discarded (several hundreds) and all the damaged ones ignored (47 for Kostenki alone). Moreover, at Brassempouy two figurines are considered to be feminine, but one of these is certainly masculine ('la figurine a la ceinture', Duhard 1987) and the other one probably, too ('L'Ebauche').

Under these conditions, it cannot be conceivable that such sampling could be representative of the various classes of Upper Palaeolithic women, an opinion also shared by Bahn (1988) and Gvozdover (1989). Moreover, we are not certain that ethnographical comparison with present- day primitives is valid, for we do not believe them to be genuine descendants of prehistoric peoples, nor the inheritors of their way of life. Such a comparison should not let us forget that the best way to profit from these works of art, is to study them directly.

b The reality

Nevertheless, Rice's basic idea was correct: Palaeolithic figures provide a complete range of individuals of both sexes and all ages, with, however, an apparent majority of women and adults and a minority of children. We do not claim to classify all the women depicted according to age categories, but prefer, as a gynaecologist, to offer a few reflections which may help other authors in future research.

1 Those females must be regarded as adult women who have breasts and/or a bulging abdomen, and/or a prominent pelvic mound, since these sexual characteristics only appear after puberty. This group, of course, includes carved or engraved 'gluteal figures', pronounced buttocks being a feminine attribute, more precisely of a post-pubertal woman.

2 Pregnant women are those with bulging abdomens, with even more certainty when adiposity is normal. When their breasts are not sagging they will have had a few children (paucigestes) and when they do, they have probably had many (multigestes).

According to Rice, these feminine figures are not representations of maternity, for she only finds 17% pregnant subjects. In France, however, we have found a larger number: 68% from the Gravettian and 36% from the Magdalenian (Duhard 1989a). If hypotheses are to be formulated, account must be taken of the period (i.e. a chronological factor) and also of the place (geographical factor); at La Marche, dated to Magdalenian III, the percentage of gravid women equals that of the whole Gravettian period. It is possible, moreover, that the percentage of gravid women is higher than bulging abdomens reveal: for us, the presence of an abdominal gesture (arms directed to the abdomen) may be a substitute for this feature and may indicate pregnancy (Duhard 1988c).

3 Women with a flat abdomen must be considered not to be pregnant, whether depicted in a descriptive or a schematic style. The importance of the pelvic mound should permit distinction between pre-reproductive and reproductive women.

4 These women are mothers and nurses whose breasts are drooping, especially those with a triangular lower end, mainly if their adiposity is increased.

Despite this classification, we cannot be sure of a successful outcome. It still remains necessary to carry out one difficult classification of indeterminate human figures: a large number of these may be women, but they may equally be men or children. From the physiological point of view, women are sexual partners, nursing mothers and social partners. Culturally speaking, any of these roles may, at a given moment, have been privileged, but nothing, with the data at present available to archaeology, allows this fact to be proved. Only art may supply a few clues; we shall return to this point.


Men have overall been underestimated by most scholars, who have not had good diagnostic data available to them. To determine the sex of representations of human beings, we have two types of criteria at our disposal, some certain, others presumed. The former include: for men, testicles and penis; for women, breasts, vulva and bulging pregnant abdomen. Among the second group are, for men, body proportions (broad- shouldered), facial hair, weapons (no unquestionable woman carries a weapon), or conflictual confrontation; for women, width of hips, gluteal protrusion, the wearing of a belt or forearm or ankle rings (Pales 1976). These criteria are of unequal value but they can, by association, lead to diagnostic certainty. This has led us to propose sexual ratings for masculinity and femininity, which may easily be applied in the study of human figures (Duhard 1990a):

If the rating is superior to 4, the sex is certain; between 2 and 4, it is probable; below or equal to 1, it is doubtful. On this basis it should be possible to deduce a large number of masculine humans from the indeterminate group; the supposed under-representation of men by comparison with women may well prove to be the result of our inability to recognize them. Pre-pubescent children, apart from the genitalia, are undifferentiated in appearance, and it is feasible that a fair number of indeterminate subjects are children.

masculinity rating femininity rating (MR) (FR) 1 facial hair 1 pubogenital triangle 2 broad or thick thorax 2 broad pelvis and/or or carrying weapon gluteal protusion or fighting against animal 3 carrying animal 3 pregnant abdomen trophy 4 penis 4 vulva and/or breasts

The sexual social division

A simple (or simplistic) scheme

Much has been said about the division of work among hunter-gatherer prehistoric or primitive people, with clear-cut divergences between the arguments, mainly as a function of the sex of the scholars (see e.g. Testard 1986 and de Beaune 1986; Johanson & Shreeve 1989).

Physiologically, in their bodies as well as in their characters, men and women have different capabilities or functions, the evidence for which is irrefutable, even though the consequences are reduced by education or social measures. This sexual differentiation is generally to be found in Upper Palaeolithic art. Women are seen in peaceful scenes -- pregnancy or child-birth, for instance. Men, by contrast, are often depicted in conflictual or dramatic situations (Duhard 1990a; 1990b), fighting against animals or carrying their trophies, equipped with weapons or opposing other human creatures.

Rice has made similar observations, speaking of woman's passive role and man's active one, and we are glad to record this point of convergence (Rice & Paterson 1988). Sometimes, the confrontation between a male human and an animal is to the advantage of the former (Raymonden, where seven subjects surround a dismembered buffalo), or seems to be favourable (Mas d'Azil, where a man plunges his stick into a bear; Laugerie-Basse, where a prone man is shown throwing his weapon towards a fleeing aurochs). In other cases the advantage is with the animal (Roc-de-Sers, where an aurochs pursues a fleeing man; Lascaux, where a fallen man is being gored by a buffalo).

The low-relief scene from La Vache

This simple scheme of sexual division of work (or sexual dichotomy) was completely proved and easy to illustrate with examples, one of the most demonstrative being supplied by a scene from Addaura's Cave in Sicily, where a man carrying weapons on his shoulder is followed by a pregnant woman carrying a burden on her back (a similar burden is to be found at Gonnersdorf).

In March 1990, however, we discovered a female subject between two masculine subjects in a low-relief scene on a stick in La Vache (MAN 83 364). This provided the opportunity to take this study further (Duhard 1990a). The animal is a member of the deer family (probably a reindeer) and not an aurochs as usually stated, and that is important: we have observed that dramatic scenes in which a human male was the hero or the victim usually involved bovidae rather than cervidae. It is suggested that here, where the animal is one of the cervidae whose attitude does not indicate any gesture of flight nor aggression, the scene is not a dramatic one. Behind the animal, and much smaller, are three humans in row. The difference of size between the humans and the animal may result as much from a disregard for proportions as from the intention to show their weakness or remoteness in comparison with the animal. This same apparent disproportion can be observed in other works of Palaeolithic art: on an engraved bone from the same site, for example, showing a row of humans behind a horse (MAN 83 349); between the horse and the diablotins (imps) of Teyjat (MAN 52 416), or between the humans and the dismembered buffalo of Raymonden (Musee du Perigord).

When the three humans from La Vache are examined carefully, we recognize a 'thoracic' silhouette in the first and the third, and a 'gluteal' and 'mammary' silhouette in the second. On the basis of our rating system, therefore, we have a woman (FR = 6) between two men (MR = 4 and 2). It is not surprising that the subject immediately behind the animal is a man, nor the fact that he holds at arm's length 'several objects which may represent either javelins or a bow' (Delporte 1981). Both the objects he is holding are reminiscent of those in the engraved rib from the shelter of the Chateau des Eyzies (Musee National de Prehistoire des Eyzies), of subject 38 from Gabillou, of the bone engraving from Gourdan (Piette 1907: plate LXXXIII), of the deer antler engraving from Laugerie-Basse (MAN 53 819) and La Madeleine (MAN 8163), and of those displayed in the well scene in Lascaux, and they come together with the object held on the shoulder of the man in Roc-de-sers (MAN 71 483) or in Mas d'Azil (MAN 48 120), and the bow-like objects of Raymonden. May we deduce them to be weapons? According to what one is intending to prove, one would be tempted to find this probable, doubtful, or certain. Whatever the case, this scene with the co-intervention of humans of both sexes shows:

a the absence of dramatic character for the human;

b the interposition of the woman between the two men;

c the presence of weapons on one of the men and their absence on the woman.

Although the woman took part in hunting, she was unarmed and not alone but accompanied by men, and so we may deduce from this that she did not take part in bloody activities, something which Testard (1966) has also observed among present-day primitive peoples.


The human representations left by Palaeolithic peoples deal with humans of both sexes and all ages, with an apparent under-representation of men and children. Women seem to have been privileged, perhaps owing to the importance of their physiological role, since they combined the functions of mothers, sexual partners and social partners. Depending on the place and the period, any of these roles may be represented in figurative works of art.

Humans are only rarely represented in association with other humans or animals, or in activities related to the latter. When this is the case, there is a clear distinction between the social roles of men and women: the latter are essentially pacific and a form of sexual division is revealed, men being equipped with weapons in dramatic confrontation with animals and in carrying their trophies.


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